Shared Stories: Abuela's Art of Self Expression

A note from Carol Kearns:

This month marks the five-year anniversary of a weekly column in the Patriot publications – “Shared Stories: The Ties That Bind.” The featured stories are all original literature written by local friends and neighbors who attend a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center led by instructor Bonnie Mansell.

The first story to appear was by Norwalk resident Kay Halsey in September 2013. Years later I discovered Kay was a golfing and tennis buddy of people I knew in Downey. Small world.

The class has an emphasis on writing memoirs, so most of the stories are true - although authors are always free to be as creative as they wish. Story topics that have appeared include descriptive memories, reflections about life, comedic episodes, and even tales of tragedy and redemption.

This writing class has been going on for so many decades that it has changed instructors and venues several times. Bonnie has been the instructor for over 19 years now, and it is her talent that keeps people coming every week. She maintains the supportive environment that is essential for successful writing. Writing takes courage - we are vulnerable when we share our words. Bonnie inspires a climate of trust and perseverance.

I went home in awe after attending my first class eight years ago. Attendees were from other cultures and continents as well as the United States, and they supported each other’s efforts with genuine enthusiasm and interest. Why couldn’t the rest of the world be like this group of people, I thought. We have so much to learn from each other.

This experience was so powerful for me that, after several years, I approached Editor Eric Pierce with the idea of a weekly column. Since then, with the permission of the class, it has been my pleasure and privilege to curate and prepare the material for press. Two years ago we published an anthology to celebrate the third anniversary of the column.

I look forward to our gatherings every Thursday. Sharing our stories is the most important tool we have for strengthening the values and experiences that define us as human beings. We think about what it means to walk in another’s shoes, we develop our empathy, and we enjoy our common humanity.

It is with bittersweet feelings that I announce this week’s column is the last appearance of “Shared Stories.” I am not leaving the class, but other activities prevent me from continuing to prepare the material. Bonnie, myself, and all of the authors have appreciated the positive feedback from readers.

It is fitting that the last story to appear is by Yolanda Adele who is the longest attending member of the class. Thank you to my classmates and fellow writers for your friendship and trust, and for teaching me so much about life as well as writing.

Carol Kearns

Yolanda Adela shares loving, and funny, memories of her maternal grandmother, who was a forceful figure even as she was expected to be submissive. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Yolanda Adele

My maternal abuela (grandmother) was born on October 5, 1897 in Zacatecas, Mexico. Her name was Acacia Castaneda. She had six sisters and a brother she helped raise. Though she was poor most of her life, she carried herself with grace and charm.

My abuelo (grandfather), Jesus Garcia, said he fell in love with her at the first glance of her Spanish green eyes. And he was further captivated when he discovered she possessed a good sense of humor.

They married in 1916 after a short courtship and had eleven surviving children. At that time women were expected to suppress their negative feelings, to be submissive. I suspect that it was Abuela’s wit that got her through the difficult times that came with raising so many children.

As a little girl, I used to visit mis abuelos at their home in El Paso, Texas. For the thirteen years that I knew her, my abuela was rather Victorian in her dress. She wore her long, thick dark hair pulled back into a tight bun, and always wore a dress with leg hose that were kept in place with special skin-tone rubber bands just above her knees. On her feet were black lace-up shoes with small heels. Best of all, she always wore a smile whenever she saw me.

Mis abuelos
lived in El Paso, but occasionally my grandmother came to visit us in Los Angeles. I knew she loved me even when she punished me for skipping school while my mother was at work one day. She agreed (as I pleaded with her) not to tell my mother.

She was also watching out for my best interests when she threw a glass of water out the window one night at a young man who had come to serenade me on my birthday. Unfortunately, her false teeth were in the glass and they went out the window as well (but that is another story).

Because I remember her as a “proper lady,” it is difficult (and amusing) to imagine her doing some of the outrages acts that I have been told about. One of the stories told to me was about what my abuela did to my abuelo’s prominent mustache, a mustache that he wore with much pride.

Story has it that someone told Abuela something about Abuelo (of which I’m not privy to) that infuriated her. It wasn’t until Abuelo was sound asleep that she retaliated.

Abuela gave my cousins some pennies to go to the store downstairs to buy Bazooka Bubble Gum. This pink gum was very thick. Abuela collected the chewed gum, one by one, from my cousins. She melted it until it became a lot of warm goo. Then she went to where my grandfather was in a deep sleep and smeared the goo all over his masculine mustache.

She must have done a thorough job of it, because my abuelo’s only recourse was to shave it all off, completely! This must have been very humiliating for him with good reason.

For people of my grandparent’s generation, a Mexican man’s mustache was very symbolic of his manhood, his machismo. I can only imagine how his amigos reacted when they saw him shaved.

Another story is about the way my abuela used to wake up my abuelo in the mornings after they had stopped sharing the same bedroom.

For as long as I knew them, Abuelo’s bed was in a closet. The bed was the only piece of furniture that fit in the tiny space. The door may have been removed to make room for my Abuelo’s head and knees as he sat and leaned forward at the edge of his bed to put on his shoes.

The wall behind his bed was made of corrugated aluminum with a faded color image of a “Gibson Girl” sipping a Coca Cola from a soda fountain glass. There was a hole in the aluminum that let the end of a broom handle fit through. And that is exactly what my abuela used to poke my abuelo in the back with to wake him up.

Still, it was easy for me to see through her antics that she loved my abuelo by the way she smiled at him and in the care she took to prepare his meals.

The culture of my grandparents emphasized that women be submissive and suppress all negative feelings, but my abuela always seemed to find a way to let her thoughts be known. That is why, with a giggle trapped in my throat, I have to admit that I’m proud of my abuela’s art of self-expression.

Shared Stories: My own best medical advocate

Mary Nieraeth contended with periodic epileptic seizures in childhood, and episodes reappeared under the stress of being a full-time working mother and wife.  She urges everyone to be actively involved in their own medical treatment.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns

By Mary Nieraeth
Ready for summer vacation, my parents, two younger sisters and I packed into our 1960’s Chevrolet station wagon. Headed about 400 miles from Illinois to Minnesota to visit relatives, I recalled playing Go Fish, I Spy and other games with my sisters to pass the time. While driving, my father suddenly veered off the road into a shallow ditch to avoid a head on collision. 

We were jostled around since there were no seat belts in our vehicle. My sisters and I were thrown to the right side of the middle seat and my head banged into the window. This trauma to my head was disregarded by my parents. However, it has lingered in the back of my mind since it may have been a contributing factor to the story that follows.

A few weeks later, I began second grade. My parents and teachers both observed incidents when I stared out into the room in a trance-like state for about 30 seconds. I never had any recollection of these incidents. After referred to a pediatric neurologist, an EEG and MRI of my head revealed normal results. 

Because these staring episodes continued, the neurologist diagnosed this as epilepsy. Anti-seizure medication was prescribed but it took many months before finding the correct medication and dosage for my condition. In my mid-teens, the neurologist weaned me off the medication, with no further seizures during my high school and college years.

During my mid-twenties, I moved from Los Angeles to Boston for graduate school and employment as a registered dietitian. This was a stressful time with many life adjustments. Shortly after starting my job, some coworkers observed me doing a peculiar behavior while eating lunch together. I had no recollection of this but knew I needed to see a doctor. 

My primary care physician expedited a referral to a neurologist. Following an EEG and MRI of my head, the results were normal. I was started on medication and instructed not to drive. Fortunately, I did not have a car and was using public transportation. Within a few months, my seizures were completely controlled.

The next twenty years were without any reported incidents of seizures. In my early forties, however, I was married, working full time, and had three children in middle school. On a busy Friday morning, the weekend of the annual school festival, I drove to the grocery store then planned to drop off some items at the festival. I was stressed from anticipation of being outside many hours that weekend in the hot September weather. 

Returning home from the grocery store, I missed the turn into the school due to loss of consciousness. I had no recollection of this happening but, apparently, ran into a truck waiting at the traffic light. The impact caused my van to veer to the right, up onto the lawn outside a medical building, instead of into oncoming traffic.  

After the accident, my life drastically deteriorated.  I lost my driver’s license, my job was terminated, and I continued to have uncontrolled seizures. My doctor referred me to a new neurologist. 

Anxious, frightened and depressed, I had my first appointment. After a quick knock on the exam room door, a male doctor entered the room. Without making any eye contact with me, he announced, “I’m Dr. Indifferent.” He picked up the clipboard and glanced at my completed medical form. 

“So, you are here for seizures. When was your last one?”  

“I’m not sure since I don’t know when I have one. My husband said I had one last night.” 

“Do you know what happens when you have one?”

“No, my family says I rock back and forth with my upper body or move my right arm in and out.”

The doctor verified my seizure medication and dosage. Next, he checked reflexes in my elbows, knees and ankles, arm and leg muscle strength, peripheral vision, coordination, balance, hopping, and walking.  He asked basic math computations, current history questions and checked my short and long-term memory. The process was exhausting. 

Without comment on my test results, he took out his prescription pad, scribbled a higher dose of the same medication and handed it to me. As he walked out the door, he told me to return in one month.

During the following weeks, I decided to keep records of the date and time of my seizures, at least those seen by my family. Feeling proud of my efforts, I brought my notes to the doctor, but he refused to look at this information. 

I felt discouraged about not having any improvement in my seizures with the higher medication dosage. He did not perform an assessment of my physical and emotional state. I felt invisible in his presence, anxious and depressed about my severely limited lifestyle. 

Finally, he handed me a prescription for a second medication and again told me to return in one month. Clearly, connection with his patient was low priority for this doctor. 

Almost immediately, I became restless and drowsy on the new medication. I called the office but was told to continue the medication. My symptoms and seizures continued. I was losing hope about my worsening condition but refused to give up. 

During my follow-up appointment, the doctor interrupted me and rudely exclaimed, “You have to learn to live with these symptoms. There is nothing more I can do!”  

Feeling appalled and dismissed by his comments, I left the office and vowed to myself never to return to Dr. Indifferent.

A few weeks later, my husband showed me an article he read in the Parade magazine of the Los Angeles Times newspaper entitled “Their Best Chance for a Normal Life“ (9/18/2005). This article discussed medical and surgical options for people with epilepsy. 

My feeling of hope returned as I explored the referral process with my medical insurance to the UCLA Seizure Disorder Center. 

Several months later, I had my first consultation with an epilepsy specialist. He assured me that the medical team’s goal was to find the root cause and best treatment for my seizures.
During the next year, I completed many tests and medication changes as part of the preoperative protocol for epilepsy surgery. The functional MRI test found a noncancerous lesion in my right temporal lobe which appeared to be the cause of my seizures. My case was reviewed by the department’s neurophysiology board. 

The team of doctors concluded that removal of this lesion by surgery had a high probability of ending my lifelong seizures. In December 2006, I had brain surgery at UCLA and miraculously, since then, I have never had another seizure. 

Many people seeking medical care place a blind trust in doctors’ opinions which may lead to substandard treatment. I learned it was imperative to do an independent medical investigation of my condition and search for a doctor who was committed to finding the root cause and best treatment of my seizures.  Not accepting the status quo in medical treatment launched my journey of becoming my own best medical advocate. That journey has no end in sight.

Shared Stories: The No. 9 Car

Not everyone knows that Los Angeles used to have a very effective mass transit system up until 1963.  The Los Angeles Railway System left a big impression on Anthony Caldwell as a young boy.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Anthony Caldwell
I grew up in Los Angeles with its trolley car system.  It was known as the Los Angeles Railway System.  Little railroad-type, electric-powered rail cars went all over Los Angeles.

The trolley cars took you to wherever you wished by transfers that had to be punched, and by a set of numbers or alphabetical letters – A through Z.  Ours was the Number 9 car.

We lived on Hoover Avenue and 47th Street, so our family took the Number 9 and it would take us north to greater Los Angeles and Wilshire Blvd, or west to Baldwin Park on Crenshaw Avenue.

People had to climb up about five feet to the main platform where the conductor stood. For a young kid, it was fun. People would help elderly people up the stairs and the folding step that came down at the bottom to help you climb. For other people, it was just part of the process.

The contraption had a coin counter-separator that sounded like a coffee grinder as it sorted out change.  An electric compressor chugged as it compressed air for the brake system.
It was the height of efficiency, as the hard, slatted seats would let air circulate and were reversible depending on the direction.  The air-conditioning was adjusted by passengers opening or closing the windows manually.

Vents in the wood roof let hot air escape, and as speed increased, the side windows supplied circulation. To me as a child, it was like the equivalent of taking the space shuttle to Mars!

The thing jerked and ground to a halt at street intersections.  People stepped off the sidewalk and into a white rectangle painted on the street next to the tracks.  It was the designated loading zone.

People in the cars obeyed the rules and waited for people to exit or enter the trolley and return to the sidewalk.

Somehow turns were negotiated at intersections accompanied by shrieks of metal wheels grinding on steel rails and wood groaning from the oak-timbered body.

We could look down into automobiles and wave to the occupants, who usually smiled and waved back.

Now Los Angeles came into view, with its famous Richfield Building of black marble and gold-leaf décor. There was also the completely modern Bullock’s Wilshire with its outside entrance ceiling decorated in modern scenes of tri-motor airplanes and Queen Mary-type ships.

Then we saw the huge eight-story high department stores, J.W. Robinson Co., Desmond’s, and May Co.  We also had access, if we wanted, to the public library and Grand Central Market with the million-dollar theater above the huge, subterranean labyrinth of tunnels for the Pacific Electric Inter-Urban Railway System.  (This latter building is still there and being reused again.)

When our trip ended, we left the “Big Town” and caught Number 9 back to South Central Los Angeles.

Shared Stories: A Tribute to My Father

Yolanda Reyna, a “daddy’s girl,” describes the complexities of the man she didn’t give up on – her father. As is often the case, having grandchildren made him a different person.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns. 

By Yolanda Reyna
My father, Gilbert Reyna, was born on March 15, 1926.  He died on November 24, 2001.  He was 75 years old.  I had to make the grueling decision to have him taken off life support.  In the last few years of his life, he dealt with health issues, mainly Alzheimer’s disease.  

Even as he dealt with health issues, I could recall a time when he was strong and healthy, being the man of the house, looking after his family.  There were good times, but he also had his struggles.

My father had lived in various run-down motels rooms for the last 20 years of his life.  He would be isolated from the world.  My father was mean and tough.  He hated the world.  He was intelligent, proud, stubborn, paranoid, prejudiced, heartless, emotionless, a recluse, an alcoholic, and a bookworm.  

My father drank alcohol most of his adult life, and being that he was an alcoholic, he was at his best when he was drinking.  My father wasn’t a belligerent drinker.  He was a sentimental drinker.  The only time I saw my father smile, was when he drank alcohol.  When he was sober, he was always complaining.  

He loved listening to music, especially Frank Sinatra.  He also played the guitar, and he played it well.   When my father was 55 years old, he was told by his doctor that he had to stop drinking alcohol for his health.   

He was a stern father and he set rules in our home (when we were a family).  The children had to be up and ready for school.  One day my brother Louie didn’t want to go to school (for whatever reason).  He was a young boy.  He walked up to the corner of our block and just stood there crying.  My father, shirtless and in pajama bottoms, with a belt in one hand, walked up to the corner and whacked my brother’s behind!  From that day on, my brother had no problem going to school.  He would be up bright-eyed and sore, bushy-tailed.  

My father always said to me: I should have been born a boy, because I clung to him.  I was what you call a daddy’s girl.  Once my father thought he could talk to me about the birds and the bees.  My ears couldn’t take it! They were screaming! 

One time I was asked out on a date by a young black man. When I asked my father’s permission, he said to me, “If you go out with him, I will disown you!” I believed him.  

Although my father was mean and tough, he and I created a special bond.  My father always gave me good advice (when I needed it).  His advice was never sugar-coated, it was always straight-forward and to the point.  Most times it felt like I was walking on egg-shells when I was around him, but I didn’t mind as long as I was with him.  

My father worked as a gardener and then a security guard.  He worked late hours, as a security guard, which he enjoyed because he didn’t have to deal with people.  I’m glad they didn’t have to deal with him.  

After he and my mother separated for the last time, he left our home. I didn’t know where he was living. I called one of my aunts to ask if she knew where he was living, because I loved my father and I missed him very much. She was kind enough to tell me, and I went looking for him, like a detective, wanting answers. When I found him, HE was furious! 

He said to me, “What are you doing here? Leave!  I don’t want anyone thinking you’re a prostitute!” 

I said, “I don’t care what anyone thinks and I’m not going to leave!”

He said, “Stop being stubborn and just leave!”

I thought, hmm, I wonder where I get that stubbornness from? After I stood my ground, he surrendered. After that visit, I was allowed to visit him once a week. That went on for twenty years. 

In the first few years I was married to my ex-husband Robert, and after having our children, my father was transformed into a big teddy bear.  He adored his grandchildren.  Li’l Reina, Li’l Roberto, and Li’l Daniel, he would call them.   He especially loved Li’l Daniel.  

I never saw my father smile as much as he did when Daniel was around him.  My father would buy my children their winter coats, Easter baskets, shower them with Christmas gifts and load them with cookies and candy.  

When my father was forced to come and live with me, (when I was married) he became extremely ill.  In the weeks he lived with me, he became calm, caring, and supportive, but yet struggled with Alzheimer’s disease.  It was tough seeing my father deal with that awful disease. But it was a joy having him around.  I was able to cook his meals, sit and watch TV with him and finally see him at peace.  

I’m glad I never gave up on my father.  It was a challenge.  I felt like I had been running a marathon for twenty years and I finally made it to the finish line.  

Dad, you’re always in my heart!

Shared Stories: How Did I Get Here?

Responding to an open-ended writing prompt in class, Charlene Farnsworth reflected on her experience with writing throughout her life and her participation in the Norwalk class. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Charlene Farnsworth
Throughout my school years, I struggled with writing. I believe this was because I was very shy and fretted about having to make presentations in class. This troubling thought always hindered my creativity. 

I enjoyed a secure home environment. There was much love shared among family members and friends. Upon occasion, I have pondered: Can one really be too loved or too secure? That surely is not possible! However, I definitely felt less secure when I attended school.

Invariably, I was woozy the first day of a new school year and, somehow, hid this from my parents. I waited until they were out of sight from dropping me off at school before I gave into my discomfort. When I told Mom later about this ritual, she responded, “I really thought I knew my kids better!” I guess I wanted to appear brave and all grown up.

Shortly after my 17th birthday, I entered college. Most of my classmates were far wiser and more mature than I. It was difficult for me to make new friends, and I often spent break time and lunchtime alone. I continued to struggle with my writing assignments, always worrying about presenting my work in class.

On June 30, 1959, I began what would become a 33-year career in the aerospace industry. This was to be a temporary position during the summer. I then planned to return to college to pursue my forever goal of becoming a kindergarten teacher. 

I was privileged to have a teacher/student relationship with my first boss. He was a supervisor in a large Purchasing Department where much documentation was required.

I enjoyed taking dictation from him relating to purchasing contracts negotiated throughout the country. Through his patient tutoring, I became more comfortable interfacing with people of all levels.

Having labored with writing for so many years, it is ironic that it became a big part of my career. My job duties were expanded to include the preparation and maintenance of secretarial procedures and departmental budgets. Although I was never comfortable with the attention I drew from my various creations, I did enjoy the personal satisfaction and monetary rewards.

One day, I had to brief department personnel all day, with approximately 50 employees at each session. I expressed my concern to my boss about turning crimson in front of my audience. He wisely replied, “Miss C., they’ll be thinking about what you have to say and not what color you are!” His valuable counsel helped me through many future presentations.

Over the years, my writing also included personal journals, eulogies for dear ones who had passed, and poetry in the form of tributes and thank-you notes. 

Upon retiring, my activities were primarily focused on caring for several family members and my favorite English teacher. Documentation then mainly related to appointment schedules and medical/financial history. This, too, was a rewarding time in my life, for I felt I was contributing to a better quality of life for others.

On July 23, 2009, I joined Bonnie Mansell’s Memoir Writing Class to concentrate further on various writing techniques. I rarely miss a session and, this week, am beginning my tenth year attending Bonnie’s most enjoyable class. I continue to reap more personal rewards, not only in my writing but in making many new friends.

Through Bonnie’s instruction and encouragement, I am very close to completing what is probably the biggest undertaking of my life, penning my 300+ page book of memoirs entitled “La-La’s Life.”

Shared Stories: Music Lessons

Many of us who have had music lessons as a child can relate to the musical journey of Vicky Williams. She was open to new experiences and had respect for her instruments, but she had too much energy to sit still for long. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Vicky Williams
“Book learning” as my mother would say - “readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic” -  was as important in our home as religion. Extra curriculum activities were also encouraged, so I decided to join the band at school. However, my band days at Swayze Elementary School in Monroe, Louisiana, were short lived. 

Mr. Turner, our band instructor, had a corn on his top lip from playing the coronet and trumpet professionally. He was short in stature but long in patience, as patient with us as Job’s long suffering in the Bible, faithful to his students, offering words of encouragement, never cracking a frown at our musical discord. 

He gingerly corrected us when our notes went sour and complimented us when we played our notes correctly. He was perceptive, passionate, professional, and dedicated to developing good musicianship in his students. He taught my brother Dorsey Williams Jr. how to play the tuba and countless other students to be good, young musicians. 

Unfortunately, my patience was not up to par at mastering a musical instrument.

I failed miserably at learning how to play the clarinet. It was an adventure and a risk -  the old musty instrument which my school provided smelled like bad breath. I took off the mouthpiece, used a mouthpiece brush with warm, soapy water to clean it, and rinsed it with cool water. 

Mother gave me vinegar in water, 1-part vinegar and 2 parts water, to further sanitize it. I rinsed it again with water, allowed it to air dry, and placed a fresh reed on the old mouthpiece after it dried. 

I made the long, sleek, black instrument with silver, shiny keys more attractive after cleaning the bell and joints using a swab on a string and a warm, soft toothbrush to clean the outside of the instrument, avoiding getting water on the keys. I put a dab of Vaseline on my finger tip and rubbed it on the instrument to make it shine and removed the excess with a dry towel.

The smelly, brown, gooey grease used to lubricate the joints and the aged, worn, brown, crackled leather case lined with faded, red velvet reminded me of an old rancid antique. Our band instruments were hand me downs. Everything in our segregated school was used instruments from white schools. 

I made it cry and make misery, when I played. When I practiced at home, I drove everybody crazy.

I made third clarinet and performed in one school concert. My instrument squeaked and squealed. I slaughtered my notes that day, pitifully off key. My performance was embarrassing. Mr. Turner kept orchestrating the band as if nothing ever happened, his head proudly held high and his hands never stopped waving instructions. 

My playing days evaporated quickly after that day. I was impatient at learning and walked away. I was in the sixth grade and my interest changed. Being in the band was on a voluntary basis.

I loved adventure. Discovering new things inspired intrigue and fascination.

I also tried learning to play the piano. I took free lessons next door at Mr. and Mrs. Foster’s house, our neighbors. My impatience worked against me. Lois, their daughter, was my teacher. She volunteered to teach me. I only got as far as learning to play chop sticks. 

I spent a few summer nights with them to escape being sandwiched between Jo and Peggy, my older sisters, in the bed we shared. Spending the night next door was more fun than learning to play the piano. 

I had my own bed with big fluffy pillows and stuffed animals, when I slept there. Their house smelled like Old Spice and fresh-lit cigars. The walls were freshly painted and the bathroom was wall-papered. They had an indoor toilet and a bathtub. I loved taking bubble baths in their pink tub. Their wooden floors sparkled and shined. Our house had linoleum floors, no wall paper, and no indoor toilet. 

I needed to be free. Playing a musical instrument was not my forte. My love for sports growing up was unquestionably better suited for my energy. I moved on to basketball assuming Champ’s role, my sister Peggy, whose team never lost a game. 

I remember mother buying me a bladder, a loud orange rubber basketball for Christmas, and I thought I had discovered heaven. I was so happy. I bounced it up and down the street introducing it to the neighbors. 

That was the last Christmas I believed in Santa Claus. I was twelve years old, so naïve for so many years. The cookies, teacakes, and milk mother would leave on the table for Santa would always be gone the next morning. I would hurry to sleep on Christmas Eve, so Santa would show up and not put ashes in my eyes.  How could he? We had no chimney for him to come down. 

What a snow job! Everybody in the family kept that fat secret from me. I was so hurt, when Mother told me the truth I cried a river. However, basketball and I were a great fit. I made the team and my love for basketball has never died. 

I started playing in the sixth grade and played for three years. Coach Hughey was a burley, thick woman with a heart of gold and knew how to get the most out of her players. She would nervously pace the sidelines during the games. “Switch,” she would shout, “go to a 2-1-2 Zone.” 

Later she might say, “Man to man, get your hand in someone’s face. D them up.” In the huddle she would remind us, “Put your foot to the pedal, now step it up,” clapping her hands loudly issuing instructions.

I was the point guard and aggressive at guarding others. My outside shot was suspect. I mostly made lay-ups, but my tenacity was unquestionable. I played with burning passion and an insatiable love for the game. 

Do Do, a nickname for Sammy White, Eddie P., my cousin, Lafter Jacobs who I had a crush on, and the boys in my neighborhood who roughed me up on the basketball court at the community recreational center were my mentors along with Coach Hughey. Their roughness fed my fire, my tenacity.

We only lost only one game the three years I played. My ear for listening to music as a child, without a doubt, was much better than my playing a musical instrument. 

No more misery squeaking out of an instrument for me. I was better at being a champion playing basketball with my tennis shoes squeaking up and down the court to victory.

Shared Stories: Youth in the Sunshine State

Katie Troy recalls the fun she had as a young adult when she joined her sister in Florida. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Katie Troy
It was January 1982 when my sister Marianne came home from Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, to celebrate her birthday with family and friends.  She moved there after she graduated college from Pittsburgh in 1979.  

Back home in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, she asked me when I was coming to visit.  I said, “How about Monday, when you leave?”

I packed my bags and was off to Florida. My mom and dad drove us to the Pittsburgh Airport.  My mom said, “It’s seven degrees.  It’s getting warmer.” It was below zero, plus there was a wind chill factor. Brrrr.

When we landed in Tampa, Florida, it was 75 degrees. It was hot for me. I was in the ocean the next day. A year later, I couldn’t believe I got in the water in January. My blood had thinned. I guess I was no longer a tourist.

Marianne got me a job in Clearwater Beach at a restaurant called the Beachcomber. She was a waitress there. I was the salad girl. I also made beet borscht and coleslaw. Later I was switched over to frog legs and chicken fryers. Those poor, innocent souls. Then I was moved on to pastry chef.

I made Baked Alaska, coconut, banana, chocolate cream, and lemon meringue pies – along with dinner rolls and banana bread. I made everything from scratch. Don’t ask me for the recipe today. I used to know it all by heart.

After working at the Beachcomber, I became a waitress at a little café called The Stuffed Bun.  Both of the places where I worked were across the street from the beach, the Holiday Inn, and the Beach Bar.

Drinking age in Florida was 19. I was 19 when I moved to the sunny state. I didn’t have a driver’s license or an I.D. Wherever you go nowadays, you need an I.D.

I would meet tourists almost every other week. When they talked, you could tell they were tourists. People from Canada were easy to recognize. They would say “Eh” after most sentences.

“Could I have a hotdog, beer, and fries, eh?” or “Where are you going, eh?”

I would party with the vacationers. We would go to the Holiday Inn and dance to the live bands that would play. We would go to other hotels on the same block next to my Uncle Chuck’s condo. Bands would play outside by a Tiki bar.

Uncle Chuck had a friend who had an airplane.  He would fly us to lunch and back. That was so cool.

I remember riding on a boat spotting parasailers. I would ride for free, keeping an eye on them.  When it was my turn, I would be up there longer than usual because the crew had to make a beer run.

Living in Florida was so much fun, even though it was humid in the summer.  Why I moved in with my brother in Lakewood, California, on Rocket Street, I have no idea, except maybe I was going to become a “superstar” in Hollywood someday.

Those were the days – to be young again.

Shared Stories: I Saw the Inside of Hell

Anthony Caldwell is one of the thousands who worked at the fabled Bethlehem Steel plant in Vernon.  Anthony’s graphic description of the process of making steel highlights the powerful forces required for this product so necessary to our way of life.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Anthony Caldwell
There has to be a heaven because I saw the inside of hell.  

In the 1970’s you could get a job doing anything. All you had to do was have the qualifications, or ‘lie’ about it. I got a job at ‘Big Beth’ – Bethlehem Steel in Vernon, California.

Bethlehem Steel recycled steel from scrap yards, junk yards, home products and the plant ran twenty-four hours a day.

On Vernon Avenue, cars waiting for trains or traffic lights to change had to roll up their windows to keep the heat out.  The plant sat right next to the street and the heat came from red-hot ingot cars coming out of the melt-ladle department.

My job with the maintenance department was to lube the equipment while it was working.  You had to be fast, unless all was locked-out (stopped).

We were on top of the red-hot heat ovens powered by natural gas and whose covers were made of bricks. If you had the bricks fail, well, goodbye! That didn’t scare me too bad.

But on top of the gantry crane, overlooking the electric, carbon-arc melting crucibles, the foreman called, “Hang on!  We have to make a dump into the melt. So stay put!”

The 50-ft. gantry crane started moving down the hundred-yard long dark, dirty building.  It picked up a dump container full of refrigerators, electric irons, pots, pans, and whatever junk steel was in it and went back to the electric melt-crucibles department.  

I looked over the side and my hand brushed the black, gritty slag – dust – over the side.  The top of the forty-foot wide lid raised up and moved with its hundreds of cables of copper wires and carbon arc electrodes swinging out of the way.

I looked down at the white-hot and red molten steel and slag.  The dump container opened its bottom and the contents poured into the molten brew.

Then all hell broke loose.  Explosions - red, green, purple, black, yellow - clouds like a storm enveloped us and the gantry crane!

Breathing the whirlwind of complete pollution was impossible!  You had to cover your face and your dust mask with anything handy. I did my best with paper towels and felt my skin react to many poisonous types of chemicals.

Finally the gantry crane moved away from the big pot and the lid swung back and closed. Then the cables started dancing, and the electric power returned.

The next day I asked for a transfer, and being denied, I quit on the spot.

Shared Stories: Making Steel

Many people in the area may know someone who worked in one of the heavy industry plants in nearby Vernon. Frank Novak describes the amazing machinery and conditions that produced steel at the Bethlehem plant before it closed in 1982. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Frank Novak
If you were driving on Slauson Avenue in the dark in the in the 1970s or 80s, in the city of Vernon, you might be treated to an amazing sight. Just past the chain link fence on the south side of the street, heavy tongs from up high would drop down to pull a glowing rectangular mass, 10 tons of orange steel, out of a high pit. 

As the overhead crane lifted the ingot clear and carried it toward the fence, you would feel the heat on your face through the car window.  

The crane would trolley along, parallel to the road, with the hot steel hanging upright until it was lined up with a set of rollers as thick as a man. The crane would bang the hot steel into the rolls and lay it down sideways, and as it did so crusts of molten metal would get knocked off onto the ground. 

Then the rollers would carry the heavy ingot out of sight into the dark bowels of the mill, leaving the pieces of slag to glow on the ground, casting eerie shadows as the metal cooled toward gray. 

This was the Bethlehem Steel Plant in Vernon, California, where I had the good fortune to work from 1973 to 1982. I had dropped out of graduate school in 1972. Heart-sick over the on-going Vietnam war, and no longer enchanted with the remnants of the 1960s counterculture, I began to work in a machine shop, looking for something more “real.” The pay wasn’t the greatest, and when I heard Bethlehem Steel was hiring, I jumped at the chance.

The Bethlehem Vernon plant was a sprawling affair. Its property stretched almost a half a mile along Slauson between Maywood Avenue and Boyle Street. The plant was a scrap re-melt plant, meaning that new steel was made by melting down scrap metal rather than extracting it from iron ore. Much of the property was open, filled with mountains of scrap metal tended by a few cranes that loaded and unloaded the rail cars.

The heart of the plant was at the north-east corner, on the south side of Slauson and nestled up against the railroad tracks along the Vernon-Huntington Park boundary. Large corrugated-metal sheds, each over one hundred feet wide and a quarter mile long, housed several rolling mills and the three electric furnaces. 

The roofs were so high that overhead cranes traveled up and down the bays just under the roof, riding on railroad-sized rails that ran along the eaves. When the mills were running there was an incessant clatter: hot steel in the shape of beam-like billets running down roller beds, cranes travelling overhead, the crude drive mechanisms of the mills themselves clanking as they turned the heavy mill rollers, and above it all the deep rumble of the electric furnaces.

It was into one of these mills that the ingots, rolling out of sight of the gawkers on Slauson Avenue, disappeared. This was the so-called 32-inch Mill, the mill where I worked during most of my years at Bethlehem. The 32-inch Mill was actually a series of two mills, two cutting machines called “shears,” and at the end a pair of cooling beds. These were positioned in a line along one of the long sheds with a lot of space in between. They were connected by conveyor beds made of steel rollers.

A rolling mill in its simplest form is two rollers, one above the other. Hot steel is rolled through these rollers, and is squeezed down as it goes through. Imagine rolling out dough to make spaghetti. Just like dough, the hot steel stretches out and becomes longer. 

But the dough we are talking about is steel so hot it glows orange, and at the first mill it is shaped like a large refrigerator. This can’t be rolled out to a smaller shape all at once, so the ingot is rolled back and forth through the two steel rollers that are 32 inches in diameter and as wide as a dining room table. 

The ingot rolls through one way and is squished slightly. The operator, operating the control levers in a little room over the mill, lowers the top roller down maybe in inch, then reverses the rollers and rolls the ingot back through. After a couple of passes, the ingot is flipped on its side, and rolled back and forth some more. This goes on, until the ingot is reduced to a billet about six inches one a side and almost two hundred feet. long, shooting down the conveyor at 30 miles an hour to the next step in the process.

I was a 25-year-old refugee from academia, and this was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.

Shared Stories: Confessions of a Recovering Hoarder

Mary Lou Garcia’s reflection on her habit of accumulating things leads her to new insight on a pledge to a best friend who is terminally ill, and thoughts about the best form of eulogy. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Maria Lou Garcia

While walking by the Sea of Galilee during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, my best friend Victoria and I made a pact. Whoever survives the other will be the one to deliver the eulogy.  It’s been 10 years since we made that pact, and, though I have had my own health issues, Victoria has contracted and battled with colon cancer.  

Early on, I expressed my strong desire to visit her in Maryland but she told me she was restricted from having visitors. Two years and three weeks past the prohibition to accept visitors, my husband, Ed, called me from work.

“I have a week off,” he told me. “Call Victoria and ask if we could come and visit her.”  
With a smile on her voice, Victoria did not only say yes, she asked, “Would you be my maid of honor and Ed be Tony’s best man?” 

Victoria declared that our visit was timely as they were spending the week at their condo by Beach City, Maryland, and renewing vows at St Luke’s Church for their 47th wedding anniversary. There would be no other guests except us. 

I noticed immediately that their condo was devoid of clutter. There was only a sofa, a dining set, a few necessary appliances, two wall paintings, and a bed for each room. I knew I was there for more than one reason. This would be a reminder of my recent goal to redefine and simplify my life.  

Last October, my sister-in-law Zenaida, who had lived in New Jersey for over 40 years, came with the intent of moving to California permanently. When she saw that our garage was packed with stuff from an accumulation of items unimaginable, she started the monumental task of tossing, donating, and keeping stuff to the bare essentials. 

From the darkness, created by piles of boxes from a garage fire and burst water pipe, came a glimmer of hope and light the moment she picked up the first object. Now, literally, there was light at the end of the garage’s tunnel! 

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that all the clothes, shoes, books and what-have- you - left by guest roomers, new teacher recruits, a friend distraught from a foreclosure, our own grown children, and ourselves - would stockpile into a nightmare. 

While the sorting of the garage is still in progress, it is possible and not too late to become a minimalist. 

First, I have to admit that I am a hoarder married to another hoarder. Once I admit this to be true of myself, I have to pledge myself to de-hoard 40 items a day (okay, so maybe four), and copy what Zenaida did, by creating piles for donation, trash and for keeps.  

So as not to be overwhelmed, I would repeat daily, like a mantra or affirmation, the proverb by the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  

Secondly, I will seriously comply with my vow of no needless shopping. Though I can honestly say that I am basically not a shopaholic, I admittedly do binge shop. The culprit is when I am on a trip abroad and go overboard with buying souvenirs and pasalubongs (coming-home presents for others). Things I might “need” someday to gift others land in my garage, stashed and forgotten.

In conversation with Father Lester about hoarding, he mentioned that the whole idea of hoarding can be cultural. Having more is a status symbol in the Philippines, something to be proud of. 

Also, after being deprived in the Philippines of things “stateside” or imported, and then moving to America, in the land of plenty, things are now for keeps and affordable. Then again, the custom of recycling, reusing, repairing is indigenous to the Filipino culture, long before recycling became popular in a throw-away society as that of the United States.  

Not to be derogatory, I am referring to how fresh, clean, unwanted foods, expired food, leftovers, broken appliances, and old sofas are conveniently disposed of.  I’ve seen it in schools and along curbs during trash pick-up days.   

Indeed, somebody else’s trash can be, in fact, another’s treasure. Growing up in the Philippines, it is not unusual to hear voices ring “Bote, Dyaro luma.” Street recyclers of bottles and old newspapers solicit door to door to buy those items for the purpose of selling them as a living.  In fairness, eBay, Craigslist, OfferUp, and thrift stores in the U.S. also create jobs of buying and selling for a living. 

During our visit to Maryland, Victoria and Tony took Ed and myself nowhere near the malls. Instead, after daily Mass in church and lunch at restaurants, we scoured thrift stores.

In fact, Ed and I were able to buy our maid-of-honor and best man clothes from a Methodist thrift shop. There were also Catholic, hospice, and the hospital thrift shops to choose from.  Being part of the equation for recycling and reusing was quite an adventure! 

Though unspoken, perhaps even unintentional, Victoria’s message was clear: detachment along with the old familiar adage, “You can’t take it with you.”  

Victoria had told me three times, “You don’t have to come to my funeral.” I pretended not to hear. I guess she knew our time spent together was the eulogy that was better experienced and lived than heard.    

COMMENTARY: Another summer of opportunity

Memorial Day is this weekend. Can you believe it? Another start of summer and all that. 

Nearly a year ago I was thinking about making a run to the state capitol for my sister had spoken about it from watching a Huell Howser rerun. We sort of made it to Sacramento but in July I lost sight in my left eye from a hemorrhage in the blood vessels, which supply blood inside the eyeball.

After an urgent injection in my eye (yes, it is a bit painful), my sight cleared enough for the two of us to make a small detour (about a 500-mile detour) to witness the full eclipse of the sun in eastern Oregon. It was surely a once-in-a-lifetime trip for both of us.

Here we are again. Two weeks ago, I experienced another hemorrhage in my left eye. My doctor seemed a little, well, let’s say upset that I was back in his exam chair with another loss of sight situation.

I had no excuses. I’ve had a lot on my mind. The optomologist/retinal specialist) agreed that stress affected my blood pressure and, combined with my diabetes, it was a recipe for disaster. He numbed me up, “stuck a needle in my eye,” and my sister accompanied me home.

I tried it alone once but ended up sitting on a bus bench in downtown LA, finally dialing 911 for I was blinded from the treatment and the bright sun. I learned my lesson the hard way. I ask her to go with me to LA whenever the need arises.

Now we are on the doorstep of another Southern California summer including a seemingly return (or continuation) of the great drought.

Yeah, I know, there were 25-foot snow drifts on Lassen Peak as we traveled to the eclipse zone, but hey, last year’s 200 plus percent of precipitation in the northern part of California almost broke the tallest dam (Oroville). It did dampen our initial trip plans for some of the nation’s prime fish hatcheries were cleared out from the muddy emergency dam release.

The good news is that I made sure we stopped at the Independence Hatchery on the way back because I had promised my sister we’d see one. I try not to break any commitments to her.
Another reminder of a war past is right off the 395. The restored Manzanar National Historic Site, a detention or rather concentration camp from WWII.

Memorial Day reminds me of the time I interviewed a Vietnam vet at my adopted VFW Post in Barrio Logan.

That was my first real experience with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Without going into details, I can say that I ended the interview because I could see that we had both traveled back to Kaesong during the siege of ’68.

Later, maybe I experienced too much death in my duties as a cemetery employee where the casualties of the current “War on Terror” came through our doors to be prepared for burial at the National Cemetery in San Diego. I just know that I felt so much hurt when I encountered a family who lost someone in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

That was a lifetime ago, yet our involvement in conflicts today still have the names Iraq and Afghanistan being spoken of in addition to Syria and now Niger.

I think I’ll visit Dad this weekend. He was a good soldier and father. He rests in Little Lake Cemetery with his bronze memorial thanking him for his service as a member of the US Army during the 1950’s.

Mom, Amelia his wife, lays with him in the same plot. I’ll thank her too.

Also, I’ll attend the city of Norwalk’s Memorial Day remembrance service at the beautiful year-old memorial and monument to all veterans who served our great country.

I suggest we all come out. It’s Monday, May 28, starting at 11 a.m.

By Raul Samaniego, contributor

Shared Stories: My first crush

There are many who can identify with Kacie Cooper’s sweet memories of her first crush.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns

By Kathy “Kacie” Cooper

His name was Keith and his family lived on the next street from us.  His mother and my mother were best friends.  He was the third-born child of seven kids.  I was the third-born child of four kids.  At my young age I guess I thought this had to be a sign from heaven - we were destined for each other.  

Keith was a stocky sort of a young man with eyes like Paul Newman and hair that matched Robert Redford’s.  But it wasn’t until many years later, probably 3rd grade, that I realized my attraction to him.  

All through elementary school he was a very illusive chap to find.  I could never find him at recess, so I would wait at the end of the hall, holding on to the metal pole, hugging it, trying to look inconspicuous while searching high and low, just to get a glimpse of Keith.

Finally, by 5th grade, two years later, I had gotten tired of searching, so I decided to start playing tetherball. By the end of that year, Keith had finally mustered up enough courage to get in line for a game of tetherball.

By then I was the tetherball queen. Kids waited in line to play the queen.

“Can I play?” he asked me. Was he talking to me? I guess he was. Oh my! Of course, I was too shy to answer. I clumsily threw the ball to the next person in line, hitting them right in the kisser, and then ran off as fast as I could. I was just so petrified. I thought I’d be sick to my stomach. Keith had finally spoken to me!

All through junior high he and I continued this hide-and-seek approach to love.  Then, in high school, Keith started hanging out with my brother Michael and would come over to our house almost every day.

Still I would hide from him.  One day, hiding in my bedroom, quietly opening the door, I saw Keith slowly closing the front door to leave.  But before he did, he saw me, stopped, and shot me the cutest smile I had ever seen on him.

I always knew Keith was shy.  I think he knew I was shy too. One time I thought maybe Keith and I would have made the best of friends, had I been a boy like my big brother Michael.

A year after graduating, my brother Michael told me that Keith’s girlfriend had just had a baby girl.  I was so hurt.

Years later, Michael got married, had two daughters, and Keith started hanging out with some other guys.

Then one devastating night Michael came to me with tears in his eyes and informed me that Keith had died unexpectedly. My heart was crushed. 

Michael cradled me in his arms and comforted me and I did the same for him.  I don’t know which one of us was hurt more.

Our first crush is the most innocent, the purest, of loves.  I never could find Keith here on Earth but let me tell you – if I get to heaven, this time, believe me, I will find him.

Shared Stories: Mama said

Dora Silvers recently celebrated her 90th birthday. In this piece, she recalls her mother and events in life by what by what her mother said. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Dora Silvers
I was living in New Jersey. When I was 14 years old, I went roller skating on the hill behind my house. I fell and hurt my knee. I took the skates off and went in my house.

Mama was in the kitchen. She said, “Sit down and I will give you a cookie. You will feel better.”

I modeled in a dress shop on Saturdays. The girls I went to high school with went to Vassar College. Their mothers came to buy them clothes. I modeled sweaters and skirts. I would tell them the sweaters came in pink, blue, and yellow. They would buy them all. I got a commission.

The owner of the shop was my girlfriend’s aunt. Mrs. Stein gave me money to go to New York to the Barbizon School for modeling. You had to be 5’8’’ or taller. I was 5’4’’.  

I was disappointed. Mara said, “Be a model in the dress shops. You get commissions.” My daughter Nancy is 5’2”. She was a Wendy Wold model.

Then I went to work as a secretary for engineers at American Can Company. The engineers taught me to read blueprints and plan jobs. They just returned from the army and went to school under the GI Bill. The engineers collected $200 so I could go to college.

The next day I went to the college. They said they would not accept women in 1946. Mama said, “Be a secretary.”

I was sweeping the kitchen floor when my girlfriend Sylvia came in. I swept the dust behind the pantry door.

Mama said, “Your boyfriend will leave you behind the door.”

When I met Jack, he told Mama that he did not cook. He lived with his married sister.

Mama said, “How will he take care of you if he can’t cook?” Well, he bought TV dinners and chow mein – enough for two days.

Mama listened to the soap operas on the radio. The only thig I remember was Rinso White, Rinso Blue. One day she dialed a different station and heard the song “Que sera, sera, what will be, will be.”  

Then Mama said, “What will be, will be.”  

Sadly, Mama is gone. The song lingers on. “Que sera, sera, what will be, will be.”

Shared Stories: One breath, one step

One fall morning in 2004 was marked by a life-changing event for Mary Nieraeth – she lost consciousness while driving.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Mary Nieraeth
“Don, what happened!?” I screamed.  I am in my van alone.  Don is at work.  It is mid-morning on Friday September 10, 2004.  My van is sitting off the main street, partly on the sidewalk and lawn right outside my medical group.  

My left arm and shoulder are pinned into the smashed-in driver’s side door. I have no clue about what just happened.  My body is aching all over and I cannot move without feeling pain.
I look down at my left shin and see a big gash.  Blood is running down my lower leg and staining my white sock.  What’s going on? Why are my coupons scattered all over the carpet? Why is milk all over the front seat?  When is someone going to help me? All I want to do is drive my van home but I am stuck on the lawn.

I look out the front van window, positioned on an angle towards my medical group office.  I see many people staring out the window down at my car.  Then, I hear a tapping on my driver’s side window and see a police officer, which startles me.  He tries to open the door but it is stuck.  

He asks me, “Are you all right? Do you know what happened?” 

I mumble, “No.” I am still not sure why he is there or asking me questions. 

“M'aam, you have been in an accident.  I need to ask you some questions.”

I do not believe him! I remember driving to my children’s school to drop off items for the festival that starts tonight.  

How did I miss the turn into the school?  I have been there hundreds of times and could do this in my sleep.  I am feeling stressed about taking care of many tasks before the festival.  I just want to get this situation over so I can continue with my day as I had planned it.

The officer takes out his clipboard with an Accident Report form attached. He asks me one question after another which feels like a long interrogation. I feel so drained and tired.  

I ask him, “Why can’t I drive my van home?” Little did I know the dire condition of my van and the dangerous proximity to the busy intersection and traffic signal just 20 feet ahead in the direction I was heading.   

The officer asks me to sign the Accident Report form.  He tells me he will submit the form to the DMV because I had loss of consciousness while driving.  

Suddenly, a wave of alarming energy moves through my body as I realize that my driver’s license will be confiscated! Thoughts of gloom and doom are rushing through my mind.  I just want to escape and drive my van home, hoping I have woken up to a nightmare that will vanish.

The paramedics arrive, pry open my van door, transfer me to a stretcher and into the ambulance. They drive less than one block to the Emergency Room. This day is the beginning of a long and winding medical journey in search of treatment options for seizures.  

I learn how to take one breath and one step at a time.

Shared Stories: The End of My Time at the Sawmill

Belle Fluhart supported her husband’s entrepreneurial endeavors as long as she could, but she was a little skeptical about one of his business partners. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Belle Fluhart

After World War II, George had been working with his father and Uncle Burt in Los Angeles County building a sawmill to be trucked up to northern California later. I was still living in Kern County near his parents.  

George called and said he was buying a car from Uncle Burt and to send him $300.00. That isn’t much money now, but at that time it was what I could save penny by penny out of my $80.00 allotment each month from the Army.

But we did need a car, so I sent the money. George’s mother came by and told me George was in Bakersfield with the car. We were to come and bring all of the tires and wheels we could find.

She didn’t have any wheels or tires. I didn’t either, so we drove the hour and a half down the narrow winding mountain road through the Kern River Canyon.

We met George in Bakersfield and saw the car. It was a 1933 Ford. It had two 19-inch wheels on the rear, a 17-inch wheel on the left front, and a 16-inch wheel on the right front. This made the car ride at a slant. These wheels and tires were borrowed and had to be returned to Uncle Burt.  

George said, “I’ve gone through everything mechanical. It runs like a new car. Get in and start it.” I did, and it really did sound like a new car.

I turned off the engine and looked around at the interior. George had done a good job cleaning it. Then I looked up.  

It hadn’t had a top on it, so George had built a ceiling of chicken wire and then covered it with an old quilt. This is what I would always see inside the car. On the outside, you only saw the black waterproof cover.

Uncle Burt had sold me a car for $300.00 without wheels or a top.

A few weeks later is when I moved up to the sawmill. I was going to Ukiah and I asked Uncle Burt if he wanted to come along.  He said, ”Yes, I’m going to drive.”

I said, “I’m going to drive.”

He said, “Then I’m not going.”

I said, “Suit yourself,” and turned on the key.  He came and got in the passenger seat.

We managed to get through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. But I had used up all of my savings and all of my canned goods from under the bed. Uncle Burt still wasn’t giving George’s father any of the proceeds from selling lumber in town.

I told George, “I’m going back to southern California and go to work.”

He said, “If we get going good will you come back?”

I said, “Your father and Uncle Burt have been partners all your life.  Has he ever given your father any of the proceeds?”

George said, “No,” and asked again, “if we get going good, will you come back?”

I replied, “If you let me go alone, I’m not coming back.”

He said, “Then you’re not going alone.”

We went south and George went back to U.S. Motors. I got a job in the Sears mail order department.  We bought our first home in Lynwood.

I have no idea what would have happened if George had said anything else that day.  We were married 61 years and 2 months when George passed away in 2004.

Shared Stories: Queen for a Day

TV game shows have been a reality of broadcast television for over seven decades. Sharon Smith remembers a neighbor who attended a popular show and won. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Sharon Benson Smith

The Danielson family lived directly across the street from us. We kids always referred to them as them as the “rich people” on the block. They had the loveliest home (both inside and out), the nicest cars, a rental behind their home, and a separate structure in their front yard that housed a bar that was fully stocked with liquor plus non-alcoholic beverages.

Mr. Danielson, Fred, was a conductor for the Santa Fe Railroad, so they were able to travel a lot too (most likely for free). His wife, Ruth, was a homemaker, and came to visit our mom quite often to have a cup of coffee from her 20-cup aluminum percolator. 

One day, Ruth came to ask Mom if she would take care of her boys, Fred Jr. and Gary, while she went to the “Queen for a Day” show to, hopefully, become a contestant.  Mom was pleased for her, and agreed to watch the boys. 

It was a very popular show at the time, hosted by Jack Bailey.  The premise of the show was that whichever contestant needed the most help, (or had the saddest story), she would be chosen as Queen. 

Ruth’s sad story was that the foundation of their home had been in desperate need of repair for several years because when it rained, puddles formed inside the house, the boys would splash in it, and come down with bad colds, often requiring a trip to the doctor’s office.

As the Danielson’s luck would have it, lo and behold, she won Queen For A Day, and that meant prizes galore! Among the prizes was a mangle – a large machine for ironing sheets or other fabrics, usually when they are damp, with heated rollers.  

Ruth taught me to operate the machine and I earned 10¢-25¢ per flat piece that I ironed for her. Boy, was I glad when I got a “real job” and didn’t have to “mangle” anymore.  Additional prizes included all new kitchen appliances, mainly one brand spankin’ new electric stove. 

Ruth didn’t need a new stove, so Dad bought it from them for our mom.  Dad’s heart was in the right place in getting Mom a new stove, but it became such a thorn in her side - it was electric and she preferred gas, saying the heat was just too difficult to control - it got too hot, or not hot enough, etc. 

Mom had that stove until our home sold in 1961, and they moved to La Mirada where she was cooking with gas once again. She was so happy to be rid of that electric stove that Ruth Danielson won on “Queen for A Day.”

Shared Stories: Randy' Last Breath

Almost two years ago, Yolanda Reyna shared a story in this column of her chance encounter with a homeless man who had a big impact on her life. Yolanda’s compassion had an impact on more people than she could have imagined. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.   Curated by Carol Kearns

By Yolanda Reyna

I met Randy over two years ago. We were just two strangers crossing paths. He was a short little man walking with a slight hunch - a drifter in need of a meal. I was fortunate to provide that for him.  

Although needing nourishment in his body, he wasn’t spiritless. He was soft-spoken, kind and gentle, and welcomed me with a genuine and everlasting smile. After that encounter, I never stopped thinking about him. I wrote a story about how we met.  

My story was published in the local newspaper in June 2016, titled “Randy.” In my story I wrote, “I don’t know if I will ever see him again”.  

A year and a half went by and I did see him on the street again, but in another town. I was so moved and excited.  I was able to share with him that I never stopped thinking about him.  I hugged him and told him I wrote a story about him.  

Surprisingly he remembered me! He thanked me for writing his story and unveiled the most lovely smile. There was something about this man that I was so drawn to. By then, he was living in a homeless shelter and I was able to visit him.

I spent time with him on his 65th birthday. In the months I kept in touch with Randy, we created a unique friendship. He was my friend and almost like a brother to me. I called him regularly to make sure he was doing OK. He, in return, would telephone me just to say hello.  

I asked if he had any relatives close by, or family members visiting him. He told me he had a daughter and three grandchildren who lived in Colorado, but he hadn’t spoken to them in a very long time. He never mentioned anything about any friends, and I didn’t want to pry into his life too much.

While he lived in the homeless shelter he was restricted from drinking alcohol, of course. There were rules set and he was unable to make long distance phone calls too. Miraculously, while living in the shelter, he did not drink alcohol for a year.  

One day while visiting Randy, I couldn’t help but ask him about his life. He told me he had been homeless for 10 years. His mother had passed away in 2005 and he lost the home where she had passed away, leaving him to fend for himself. He also confided in me that he had started drinking at an early age, and that was all he knew.  

He often found shelter with friends from time to time, but then he would pack up with what little he had and drift back into the streets. I knew one day he would leave the shelter as he often told me he would. Sadly, when he did leave the shelter, he went on a drinking binge.  

He called me days before Thanksgiving, and told me he wanted to get a job, and get his life in order. We had planned on meeting during the week for a cup of coffee, something we had always talked about doing, but that day would never come.  

Just a day before Thanksgiving, I received a text message. It read, “I’m in the hospital. Call me.” I called immediately. When asked if I was a family member, I told the person I was just a friend. Apparently, one of the staff members looked through Randy’s cell phone and found my number.  

They couldn’t give me any information but told me I could visit him. When I arrived at the hospital, I was shocked and heartbroken to see he had been placed on life support. The hospital knew he had a daughter and was desperately trying to get a hold of her.  

Randy was unrecognizable. His hair was matted, and he looked pale and bloated. It was obvious he had had a fall. He had a chunk of dry blood on the bridge of his nose, and the side of his face was scraped pretty bad. I recognized his hands, because he was a nailbiter.  

I felt helpless, but I kept thinking about his smile. He always had a smile from ear to ear before this happened. It was gut-wrenching to see my friend needing the aid of a machine to help him breathe.  

In the days I visited Randy, I was able to pray over him, talk to him, caress his hand, and whisper in his ear, thanking him for our wonderful friendship. I had placed my story “Randy” by his bedside.  

One day while visiting Randy, I couldn’t help but ask a nurse, “What happened to him?”
She said, “I’m not supposed to tell you, but since you have been the only one visiting him, I will. He was brought in by an ambulance. He was found unconscious behind a liquor store.” 

One day I found a man visiting Randy when I entered the room. I introduced myself and he told me his name was Richard. He was a friend of Randy’s family and had received a phone call from Randy’s daughter. She asked him to be at the hospital with her father. When Richard asked me how I knew Randy, I handed him my story.  

We went to the cafeteria and Richard confirmed everything Randy had shared with me about his mother passing away and his homelessness. Richard also informed me Randy was going to be taken off life support that day. Randy’s daughter, Christina, finally called and gave her consent. I was present in the room along with Richard when the life support was removed.

I gestured to Richard to give me his hand so that I could pray. We bowed our heads and I asked the Lord to have his will with Randy and I thanked the Lord for allowing me to meet this kind man.

I said to Randy, “Go, you’re at peace now.” At 2:43 pm, November 28, 2017, Randy took his last breath. I leaned towards him and kissed him on his forehead. It was a profound experience.

Richard and I embraced each other. I was honored to meet Richard and he thanked me for watching over Randy and for writing my story “Randy.” 

Meeting Randy was by far one of the best experiences in my life. There was a time when I would have never approached any homeless people, but once again, there was just something about this man. I cherished our friendship. He was soft-spoken, kind and gentle. Before his final last days, he always had a smile from ear to ear.  

Randy was laid to rest three weeks later when his daughter came from Colorado. I was able to meet Christina and a host of Randy’s friends. She hugged me and thanked me for being by her father’s side. I was then asked by Richard if I would give a eulogy at Randy’s funeral. I was honored and moved.  

Before Christina and friends of Randy went up to the podium to speak, I went up. I opened in prayer and read Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and I read my story “Randy” to a host of about 30 guests.

In closing, I shared how much Randy meant to me and how grateful I was to meet him.

Thinking back on this wonderful encounter and journey that I had with this total stranger, I marveled. From just two strangers crossing paths, who would have ever thought that I, a complete stranger, would give Randy’s eulogy! 

May you rest in peace, Randy.  I will never forget you.

Shared Stories: Learning to Drive in the U.S.

Anthony Kingsley’s deadpan description of learning to drive in the United States offers perfect episodes for a comedic film – and it even ends on a suspenseful note.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns

By Anthony R. Kingsley
I grew up in Ireland during WWll. When I was about age six I used to listen to the American Forces Network (AFN) Stuttgart and Frankfurt and developed a dream that one day I would go to the United States.
I moved to England where I got a job with a construction company. The pay was OK but not enough to save for moving to the USA. I got two more jobs: bartending during the evenings and selling in a Department Store on weekends. The money from these two jobs went into a separate account. 
As time went by and the savings were building up, I decided to make a bet on a horse named Damredub. Damredub won at a good price. And the savings account got closer to its goal. 
I went to the American Embassy, applied for an immigrant visa and showed my bank accounts to prove I had enough funds to support himself. My passport was stamped with a visa. I advised my three employers of my intention to leave. 
On April 28, 1965 I boarded the 53,000-ton ocean liner, the SS United States. I could have gone on the Queen Mary, but the SS United States offered a 10% immigrant discount. 
As we pulled out of Southampton the captain announced that we would arrive in New York on May 3 at 6:00 am. The next five days were spent on the water with six meals a day – wow – what luxury!!
On May 3 I was up on deck as the ship passed under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the entrance to New York Harbor at exactly 6:00 am. I saw all these car lights and wondered where all these people were going. The answer was, of course, people heading to New York City for work. 
After I cleared immigration and customs, a big burly stevedore picked up my meager belongings and carried them out. Not knowing the value of the currency, I gave the stevedore a tip based on English values. The stevedore very nicely handed the tip back and said, “If that is all you can afford son, you need it more that I do.”
A friend of a friend picked me up and took me to an apartment in Brooklyn. After searching for a few days, I obtained a job with Chase Manhattan Bank. But I had to pay the employment agency one month’s pay. 
My neighbor Frank offered to teach me to drive but I said No, I wanted to learn in my own car. After a few months I bought my first car for $300 – a 1960 Plymouth Savoy with huge fins at the back. Off I went with Frank and suddenly I saw a car in my rear-view mirror right up on my tail, so I nervously pulled over. There was no car – what I saw were my own fins.
I got my license and Frank asked me to drive him into New York to buy something. I dropped Frank off and continued driving around the block again and again. Then red flashing lights appeared behind me. I stopped and handed all the paperwork to the officer and was directed to go sit in the police car. The other officer drove my car to the police station.
After about two hours, they said I was free to go. When I asked why I had been picked up, the answer was because I was driving around and around in front of a bank.
While at Chase, my supervisor told me that if I wanted to get ahead I would have to go to college. I applied to Queens College but I was refused because I had no education paperwork. So, I took and passed the GED and was accepted to Queens College. 
In November 1965 the Great Northeast Blackout occurred, cutting power from Canada to Pennsylvania.  And where was I at the time? Stuck down in the metro. It took me five hours to walk home. 
I left Chase to work for an engineering company but Chase asked me to come back and work from 6 pm to midnight on a special project. I accepted so that I could build up my savings. 
In 1969 I was on the freeway when I was hit from behind by a truck. The company would not settle so I sued them. I went to court and the company made an offer. I refused. The judge said I should accept it because there was a five-year backup in the courts. I took the judge’s advice.
After four winters of cold and snow and with no car it was time to say au revoir to New York and head west. So where to go - Los Angeles or San Francisco? A flip of a coin decided – Los Angeles it was! I got a job with a mining company headquartered in Los Angeles and travelled to plants in California, Nevada and Arizona. 
I also transferred to California State University, Los Angeles. In 1982 I graduated with an MBA completing the requirements for both the Accounting and International Business options.
In 1989 I got a job as the Chief Accountant for the State of YAP in Micronesia. But despite the warm water and swaying palm trees, I left after three months.  
I got a job as the assistant controller for a demolition company. I met a wonderful woman from the Philippines, to whom I am still married, bought a house, and decided that my wandering days were over.
But alas, settling down was not meant to be.